Hell Week is a right of passage for all Navy SEALs. It is the hardest week of the hardest training program in the U.S. military, Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training. It always falls during First Phase of BUD/S — in the modern era, anyway — though it has moved around a bit within First Phase. Sometimes it is the fourth week, sometimes the fifth, and so on.
Hell Week holds some ancient rituals and trials, which all BUD/S students know they can expect, and it also holds some surprises, that are either pre-planned and kept under wraps by the instructor staff, or launched on a whim by a particularly sadistic instructor.
All the BUD/S students who have made it to Hell Week know, for example, that they can expect the “Steel Pier,” the paddle around the island, the mud flats, the demolition pit, and hours and hours of calisthenics and boat handling. They also know that they can expect little, if any sleep, as much food as they can stuff in themselves during meal times, and countless surf torture sessions, in the frigid Pacific ocean.
There is no sure-fire way to prepare yourself for Hell Week, physically, other than to be prepared for BUD/S, generally. There is not some magic trick to making it; there are no shortcuts. BUD/S students will suffer and they will suffer mightily. One boat crew might win itself a slight respite, and five minutes of sleep, if it is victorious in a boat race of some sort, but that is no guarantee. It does always pay to be a winner, but the victory is often a pyrrhic one, as that five minutes of sleep can be followed by a grueling “beating” by the instructor staff.
The staff prides itself on putting the trainees through a grueling, debilitating, soul-crushing, and spirit-destroying Hell Week. They know to do otherwise would deprive the students of an experience that all SEALs share. Those students who make it all the way through BUD/S will remember their Hell Week forever. They might not appreciate it while actually in it, but later on, they will pride themselves on having had a “hard” Hell Week.
Well, they are all hard. Some are worse than others, usually due to mother nature, but only marginally so. They all suck. Big time. A BUD/S student hopes for seconds, or blessed minutes, of relief and rest, and each cherishes any relief they are able to steal away throughout the ordeal.
This author, for example, during his Hell Week, was snuck a Snickers bar by one Marcus Luttrell, who was injured at the time, and serving in the student support staff, having already made it through his Hell Week. It was like that commercial; one minute, I was Betty White trying to carry a boat on my head, and the next, I was myself again, though that boat still sucked bouncing on my sunburned dome.
I will let you all in on a little secret: there are some ways to make Hell Week just a wee bit more survivable. Take these ten tips, ingest them into your grey matter, and you will have the slightest mental edge should you ever find yourself knee-deep in Hell Week.
1. Prevent Chaffing at All Costs
This sounds easier than it is. Your skin is under constant assault during BUD/S, and especially in Hell Week. The sun, the sand, the salt, the water, the ground, the o-course, and every other damn thing is beating on your skin day in and day out. It will bruise, blister, burn, chafe, and rub you raw. The only thing you can do is fight it. Use diaper rash ointment, Butt Paste, petroleum jelly, and anything else you can find to make it better. Apply liberally to your sack, the head of your Johnson, your armpits, and your nipples, at the start of Hell Week. Hide some somewhere, if you can, to put more on later.
Wear a speedo, too, under your UDT shorts and utility pants, during the whole week. When in your forced shower, ball your speedo up, hide it in your fist, and slip it back on when you get dressed. You will thank yourself. That speedo will keep all your delicates well-protected.
2. Eat, Eat, and Eat Some More
BUD/S does not starve its students as Ranger School does. Thank God for that. You will need every calorie you can get. Put butter in your coffee in the chow hall, eat as many portions as you can, as fast as you can. Go for high-calorie food, and load up on it. You really cannot eat enough food in the short time you will have for the meals. Go crazy, and do your best to load up.
3. Don’t Think Too Much About Hell Week Ending
Until you are “secured” (finished), in the shower, and getting into your bed for the 18 hours you are about to sleep, post-Hell Week, do not allow yourself to believe that it is over, or close to over. Just keep going. Tell yourself that you will go until you die. Yes, count the sunrises that you are lucky enough to survive, and try to track the days, but do it just for a point of reference. If you make it to Wednesday night, you are probably going to make it through. Tell yourself that you will make it, or die trying. That is really the only way you can do it.
4. Help Your Buddies
Make no mistake, you will be in self-preservation mode during Hell Week, focused almost 100 percent on surviving your ideal. Well, do not let that stop you from encouraging your buddies, and taking strength from their continued success. You want them to make it, too, after all, and you can all encourage each other to succeed. There is power in your collective suffering, and they need you as much as you will need them. Save at least 10 percent of your effort to help your buddies make it through.
5. Overcome Your Aversion to Same-Sex Snuggling
Assuming that you even have such an aversion, get passed it. You will fall to such profound depths of cold despair, that any source of warmth will help you hold on, and ride it out. I spooned my swim buddy, I was peed on as we all huddled on the pool deck in the dead of night, and I hugged men tight in the surf zone to both stay warm and keep from washing away. Just do what it takes.
6. Embrace the Suck
This is a mental game, but one that works. Imbibe your suffering. Drink it in, and relish it. Tell yourself that you will probably never know a similar type of hell ever again. Allow it to wash over you, and take pride in how much pain you can endure. Tell yourself that one day you will tell your children about it, that it will set you apart from most of the rest of society, and that you will have the resulting glory, forever, if you make it through. That is a powerful motivating force and one that can help carry you through. Be the man (or woman) that can survive hell, and come through on the other side.
7. Daydream About What You Will Do When You Finish Hell Week
Now, granted, this will pretty much boil down to eating and sleeping — the two most glorious things you will ever experience post-Hell Week. That will be enough, though. Fantasize about the meal you will eat; that you will have earned. Imagine yourself lying in bed for 24 continuous hours watching television buried under the covers, in the darkness. Live for the comfort you will feel when it is all over.
8. Give It All You Have
Unfortunately, Hell Week is about more than surviving, and you will also have to prove you belong. You will have to make an effort, and show the instructors that you are not just riding it out. If they sense that from you, your Hell Week will become much worse. They need to see you trying, making an effort, and doing your best. Plus, you might win some races, and get to sleep for five minutes. It will be worth it.
9. Steal Rest and Comfort, When You Can
This goes along with the Snickers bar incident, above. If you have the chance to sneak a break, or warmth, or a snack, or any kind of comfort, you take it. Maybe you get caught and are punished by the instructors, but deep down, they will admire you for trying. There is an old saying that floats around BUD/S, “If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.” Just don’t get caught.
10. Whatever You Do, Do Not Quit
It is as simple as this… assuming you can avoid coming down with a flesh-eating bacteria or pneumonia, like one of my classmates did — twice — in two separate previous Hell Weeks (he ended up making it through ours). Again, tell yourself that short of a debilitating injury or medical condition, you are making it through. No amount of cold, tiredness, pain, discomfort, or chaffing will keep you from succeeding. Make it your mission in life to finish, and you might just do it.
This article was written by Frumentarius, a former Navy SEAL, former CIA officer, and currently a lieutenant in a career fire department in the Midwest. It has been edited for republication.
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